Reviews of Theology, Broadly Understood

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Merton & Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man, and The Seven Storey Mountain


This 155 page collection of 19 letters between the two writers, Trappist monk Thomas Merton (signed Fr. M. Louis, O.C. R. in 13 of his letters; O.C.S.O. in only one, simply Fr. M. Louis in two) and Evelyn Waugh over a nearly four year period (July 1948-February 1952) assembled by Mary Frances Coady is a fast, enjoyable read. 

Some of the fun lies in imagining these two literary titans processing each other’s letters (13 from Merton to Waugh, 6 from Waugh to Merton) as they formulate a response. As readers we have the advantage of knowing certain outcomes, for example, the final, and much-shortened, edit by Waugh of the English (British) version of The Seven Storey Mountain (renamed Elected Silence). 

We should keep in mind the ages of the men when these letters were written. Waugh (b. 1903) was 12 years Merton’s senior (b. 1915), so while Waugh was in his mid-forties, Merton was in his mid-thirties at the time. Anyone interested in getting to know Merton-the-younger will like this book. There are similarities to consider. Both men were converts to Catholicism in their twenties - Waugh in 1930 at age 27, and Merton in 1938 at age 23. Both men had a decade of adult Catholicism under their belts. 

One can read in Merton’s correspondence (that he may be star-struck of Waugh) a felt-need for a literary mentor. There is also, at times, an underlying need for acceptance, and to please, i.e., he goes to great lengths in more than one letter to apologize for his biography of St. Lutgarde, What Are These Wounds 

The correspondence is started by Merton, and in Waugh’s replies he does not hesitate to offer mentor-like criticism, advice and the sending of books. Merton, for his part, often appears to be offering spiritual direction, most often in closing his letters, sending prayers and offering suggestions. 

After his 1949 ordination, Merton reminds Waugh many times that he is praying for him: “I remember you at Mass,” and recommends Waugh pray the Rosary, “Say some Rosaries too, if Our Lady inspires you, it is healthy.” Merton also asks Waugh, “Pray for me too, please.” On One occasion Waugh does ask “Please pray for me,”, but other than that Waugh’s letters are very business-like. 

Of interest to me was how each writer signed off on his correspondence. Merton used the following: 

In Corde Christi (4 times)
In Corde Jesu (3 times)
Sincerely, in Corde Christi (twice)
In Corde Domino
Yours in Corde Jesu Christi
Sincerely Yours in Christ
In Christo Domino
Yours in Corde Christi
Yours ever in Christ
Sincerely in Christ 

And Waugh, for his part, signing his letters: 

Yours sincerely
Yours very sincerely
Yours ever (3)
Ever yours very sincerely 

Lawrence Cunningham is quoted on the dust jacket, “This careful study is also an interesting snapshot of the culture of the mid-twentieth-century Catholicism.”

To some extent that is true, but Coady does not develop this much, so perhaps less than a snapshot but rather a cursory glance. 

There was however considerable discussion on Waugh’s assignment (including his alcohol-fueled tour of the country)  from Time magazine to write an article  on contemporary American Catholicism -  but for a true snapshot – or at least Merton’s vision - of mid-twentieth-century American Catholicism, I turned to Merton’s journal entry for September 13, 1948: 

“…it seems he (Waugh) is going to do a feature for Life on the Church in America. The idea seems to be that there is a great Catholic revival in this country and that the future of the Church depends on us. 

“That is all news to me. If we are supposed to be reviving, where are our saints? Who keeps fasts of the Church? Who does any penance? Where is the poverty of religious? And what about our comfortable, well-fed easy going priesthood? What about the stuffiness that pervades the whole self-satisfied atmosphere of American Catholicism? When we have had something to suffer, we might do something for the world.” 

That’s some indictment, and from the guy (Merton) who less than a year previous, in the same journal (November 23, 1947) took to task Fr. John  Hugo, “one of Lacouture’s gang.” Hugo happened to visiting the Abbey at the time: “…it seems they (Lacouture and Hugo and ‘the detachers’) say you priests specifically must give up so much smoking and drinking specifically, and don’t stuff yourselves with so much food and desert. This makes everybody sorrowful because they really like cigarettes, pies, etc.”  

Interesting stuff and interesting times, made much more interesting by the likes of Merton & Waugh.  

In the epilogue Coady writes, “Had the two been young men together, callow and self-indulgent in their view of the modern world, yet insightful critics, and above all, creative artists hungry for the things of God, they might have become long-lasting friends.”  

Or, as I imagine, at least good drinking buddies.